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I was surprised to find that there was joy in remembering that long-gone world with someone else. We named little things, now extinct, like waiting at a crosswalk, or the smell of gasoline, or the sound of passing cars in the rain. (p. 142)

The above quote comes from “The Lost Roads” and is emblematic of Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern, as the narrator remembers how the world used to be through nostalgia-tinted lenses, taking time to reflect on some of what they collectively have lost even though the removal of cars has been a net gain to society overall. Though a few of the stories in this collection, such as “The Lost Roads,” are relatively optimistic, a sense of loss pervades the collection as a whole.

Many of Kern’s stories are bleak: “What Can’t Be Undone” features a woman named Lorra, a ‘stitcher’ who made the choice to magically stitch herself away from her daughter for her daughter’s safety, and the title story of the collection, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” takes place in a future Texas where those who can afford to live in domes—away from the direct effects of climate change—have a much better shot at obtaining traditional markers of success such as going to college. Even more than the other major motifs of social class, climate change, parenthood, and queerness running through these stories, loss and how characters react to loss tie together all the stories in Real Sugar is Hard to Find.

Loss of parenthood is explored in “The End of the Nuclear Era,” which takes place in a world where Children’s Centers are set up for children to live away from their parents, and some biological parents protest outside the centers that these institutions are ending the nuclear family. The narrator, Dr. Goldstein, works at one of these Children’s Centers and bonds with Rone, a new runaway at the Center whose mother consistently spent more time with her wounded animals than her child yet is still in denial, telling Dr. Goldstein that “You don’t understand how much you people have hurt me” (p. 128). The parents’ reactions to loss of their position as caretakers range from anger to denial, two of the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross Model, which are yet another way loss intertwines with parenthood in this collection.

Another take on parenthood or the loss thereof is in the opening story of the collection, “The Propagator,” which is one vision of what Texas may look like in a post-Roe v. Wade world. In this world, women and allies form informal networks to help with abortions and are known as “friends of Lilith.” The narrator, Marisol, becomes involved in growing flowers to “help Lilith in her work” after her experience of being forced to carry her baby with a fatal birth defect to term because she can’t afford to travel out of state to obtain an abortion, and fears being arrested for reproductive crimes (p. 19). Marisol’s day job is working at VerdiCorp, which sells plant-growing supplies, and she steals soil after having to install a lawn in a prison ward for reproductive criminals. Even though Marisol knows that her eventual arrest is inevitable, she feels that she should have done more to prevent her baby’s suffering, which fuels her determination to continue her work. Like Marisol, for some of the other main characters in Real Sugar is Hard to Find, loss and grief are catalysts that spur them to take action and become active in their communities.

When not writing fiction, Kern is a journalist who focuses on climate-related topics, and their expertise is clear in this collection, as social class and environmental justice is a major theme running through Real Sugar is Hard to Find. In the story that gives the collection its name, the main character and narrator is a teenage boy from Texas named Peter whose sister Nicole is recovering from a suicide attempt. Peter’s mother wants to bake Nicole a cake made with real sugar, which is hard to acquire because of rationing. She drives him to a farm outside their domed community that is willing to illegally sell them sugar, and Peter runs into Mahim, the South Asian boy he’s been seeing and whose family owns the farm. While chatting with Mahim, Peter’s mom brings up college. Peter is stricken with embarrassment from his mother talking to Mahim and stumbles, stating that Mahim probably isn’t going to college. In response, Mahim says, “I’m not going to college. I’m just a fucking domeless, right? Probably gonna milk goats forever” (p. 50). Peter notes that his mom would never give up her spot in their domed community no matter what, stating that “she would sell both legs to keep our spot,” when she complains about the air quality in the dome (p. 45). Not even this encounter with the farm boy and a run-in with gangsters living outside the domes who are desperate for money can make her believe there’s something wrong with this system, making this story a cautionary tale of how climate change can exacerbate pre-existing income inequality and how invisible that inequality can be to its beneficiaries. This is a story of lost opportunities, of how policies can fail to evolve with the times. With the complex effects of climate change, these failures worsen already existing class and race issues.

“Sister, Fly or Die” is the only story in the collection with nonhuman main characters, and Kern plays with traditional notions of faeries by giving them an environmental justice twist. Marfglen Heathdrake, our protagonist, is a witch who has dedicated her career to studying the effects of ARKon-9, a pesticide that poisons magic in some faeries. Marfglen, who has accepted that her work will languish in academic obscurity, in part because of its potential destabilizing effect on the current regime, discovers that rebels in the Ira Magae have read her work and want to recruit her. The lampooning of academia adds a layer of humor onto Marfglen’s adventures, but “Sister, Fly or Die” is ultimately about how environmental justice isn’t an issue exclusive to humans but instead affects all species on the planet, since humans aren’t the only ones who stand to lose.

Not everything is hopeless in Real Sugar is Hard to Find, even if resistance appears futile at first glance. “The Listener” directly addresses the hopelessness and ecological grief that is becoming more common as more people directly experience the effects of climate change [1]. “The Listener” takes place in Texas and features Jane, who learns in 2008 that she is a Listener, which means she can hear trees. As a teenager, Jane is overwhelmed by the voices of dying trees at school and around town and goes through the stages of grief as she tries to save each tree at first, but eventually she gives up and chooses to leave Texas because the desperation of the trees during a drought is too much for her, much like how grief over a lost loved one can drive people to make drastic changes to how they live.

Something in me broke then.

When I caught my breath, I screeched out of the parking lot, at first thinking only about getting away from that bereaved oak. But the moans of three hundred million trees dying in the worst drought in Texas history chased me clear across the state. In El Paso, I ditched Carol’s car in a Whataburger parking lot and boarded a Greyhound to Phoenix. (p. 40)

The next time Jane returns to Texas is in 2019, when she visits with her wife and son Bo in tow for her brother’s wedding. When asked why she is so free compared to how she seemed before, Jane confesses that she put far too much pressure on herself at sixteen to save every last dying tree. She says, “I thought it was my destiny. But maybe I wasn’t meant to be their savior. Maybe I was just supposed to listen” (p. 43). Even if she can’t save every last tree, Jane has a special connection with the trees and decides she might return to school because trees “give off chemicals that are like anti-depressants. I’d like to study whatever science that is” (p. 43). Though Jane can’t achieve what she tried in high school, she realizes the true power of her gift and reaches a resolution, coming to a stage of acceptance—the last stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross model—of what she cannot change and focusing on what she can do, similarly to Marisol in “The Propagator.” Like Marisol, loss has made Jane realize what she brings to the table and how she can help the most, although Jane’s process takes years longer as she comes of age.

Kern excels at creating haunting worlds and memorable characters throughout Real Sugar Is Hard to Find. Picking individual stories to discuss at depth was difficult because the common themes run so strongly through the entire collection. No matter what the world looks like outside, Kern’s characters are reminders that kindness and defiance make their mark.

 

[1] Comtesse, Hannah, et al. "Ecological grief as a response to environmental change: a mental health risk or functional response?." International journal of environmental research and public health 18.2 (2021): 734.



Tina S. Zhu writes from her dining table in NYC. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Fireside, and Cossmass Infinities, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @tinaszhu and at tinaszhu.com.
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